15-minute Cacio e Pepe

Cacio e Pepe

Forgive me while I whine for a few minutes.

Some folks get sniffly colds that pink up their noses and cheeks and bring on squeaky little sneezes. It’s almost cute — you just want to hug them, wrap a fuzzy scarf around their neck, and hand-feed them chicken noodle soup. Five days later, they’re back to their regular jogging schedule, laughing with bright eyes and talking in a normal voice.

Not me, people.

Once a year, I get a knock-down-drag-out cold that knocks me flat for a good long stretch. After a day of an open-faucet drippy nose, it heads straight for my lungs, and for the next month (yes, month), I sound like an emphysematous 90-year-old man. My head is stuffed shut, my ears are a hollow cave. My d’s sound like n’s. When I sneeze, I crackle like crunchy potato chips. And if I don’t remember to cough heartily at regular intervals, I wheeze.

It ain’t pretty.

So, the 2012 version of The Cold started last Thursday. By Saturday, I was a sad sack, huddled on the couch with Kleenex and dextromethorphan, re-watching the entire 2nd season of The Walking Dead, feeling (and looking, I’m sure) like the title characters, envying their spunky determination to stay vertical and keep moving against overwhelming odds (i.e., being mostly dead). I completely lacked their energy.

Saturday, dinner was a no brainer: when I’m sick, I need Mulligatawny. Nothing else will do.

But Sunday, I was feverish and exhausted, craving starchy carbs and an eight-hour nap.

Spaghetti with Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato sauce (which I had in the freezer) sounded really good. But then I remembered cacio e pepe — spaghetti and black pepper — a super simple pasta dish with a peppery cheese sauce. Easy enough for even a groggy, stuffy-headed wheezer to pull together.

Cacio e Pepe

I’m not sure that cheese is advisable for someone with, shall we say, drippage issues [verdict after the fact: nothing nothing nothing could make this situation any worse], but once the dish entered my mind, I wanted pasta and aged cheese, over and out.

I even had all the ingredients on hand. Years back, no one was more surprised than I when Murray’s Cheese set up shop inside my Kroger. Surprised, but totally not complaining, as good cheese is now at my beck and call 24-7, including the blocks of Pecorino Romano (above left) and Parmesano Reggiano (right) that I keep stocked in my fridge. (If only they sold grana padano and burrata here, my cheese heaven would be complete.)

Cacio e Pepe

There are many variations on this recipe, with loyalists arguing the benefits of one technique over another, but they all share the same challenge: clumping cheese. When you mix cheese with hot, starchy pasta water, oil and butter, you’re gonna get clumps. So, for this dish, I turn to Cooks Illustrated, despite my mixed feelings about that franchise.

(Yes, I admit it: mixed feelings. On the one hand, I admire CI’s commitment to the test kitchen and the home cook. On the other, they seem to be more frequently stretching the bounds of sensible recipes in favor of funky, whizbang ingredients (e.g., adding seltzer water to waffle batter: it’s a person more organized than I who always has still-fizzy seltzer on hand for an impromptu batch of morning waffles).)


Their technique of replacing butter with the same amount of cream in this recipe made sense. And it works — no clumping.

Even dragging myself around the kitchen like the living dead, I still managed to have dinner on the table in 20 minutes. Awesome.

Karen xoxo (from a safe, antiseptic distance)

P.S. the plated dish in my photos doesn’t look particularly saucy, but that’s because this tired zombie immediately piled a portion on the plate to snap the snaps. Let the pasta rest, per instructions, and it will be pleasingly cheesy.


15-minute Cacio e Pepe

adapted from Cooks Illustrated

I’m finding it more and more annoying that food manufacturers are slyly reducing the amount of product they pack in the same-sized containers. It’s rare to find a 1 pound box of pasta anymore — 12 to 14 ounces seems to be the norm, which wreaks a bit of havoc on recipes calling for the old standards. I’ve scaled this recipe down a bit to use a 14 ounce box of spaghetti, since that was all I was able to find.

Prep Time: 5 minutes       Cook time: 15 minutes       Yield: 4 servings

5 ounces finely grated cheese (I use a combo of Pecorino Romano and Parmesano Reggiano)
14 ounces dried spaghetti
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Bring 6 cups of a water to boil in a large pot. Salt generously and add the spaghetti. Cook until al dente, per package directions (about 8-10 minutes).

2. Drain pasta, reserving 1 1/2 cups of the pasta water. Return the pasta to the pot.

3. In a medium bowl, slowly whisk 1 cup of the pasta water into the grated cheese. Add the cream, oil and pepper, whisking thoroughly. Slowly pour the cheese sauce over the pasta, tossing to coat.

4. Let rest for several minutes — the sauce will thicken and better coat the noodles. If too thick, add the remaining pasta water a bit at a time, until you achieve the desired consistency.


  • To save time, grate the cheese while the pasta cooks, rather than prepping ahead of time.
  • Not to sound all Ina Garten, but this dish screams for high-quality aged cheese — buy the best you reasonably afford.
  • For a slightly lighter dish, use half and half instead of heavy cream. Either way, do note that this is in no way health spaghetti.
  • Not all black pepper is the same. If your pepper runs on the hot side, use a bit less than 1 teaspoon. If more mild, or if you adore black pepper, add an extra half teaspoon.
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    1. Awwww. Feel better soon (ish). If I were closer, I would send a vat of soup your way… or some seltzer waffles and a big tub of Lysol wipes :-)

      I lost my whole month of February and a chunk of March to the sinus infection that turned into bronchitis that turned into pneumonia (sp?) – which seems to be a once every five year deal. It totally sucked.

      Thank you for the pasta reminder – this is one I need to remember when I am internally (inside voice, right?) whining about making dinner…

    2. I think this looks delicious. And, I’ve been hanging onto a cold for about three weeks now, and I just don’t know how to shake it.

    3. Wonderful recipe and so easy! I second your comment on “repackaging smaller amounts in the same box”. Really is tacky of the manufacturer(s).
      Hope you feel better! I have the same problem, if I pick up a cold, in 2-3 days it’s in my lungs and can last up to 2 months. Most annoying. Again get well soooooon!

    4. That is certainly my idea of comfort food and I will probably make something similar tonight even though I’m not sick, just needing a little comfort…

    5. I’ve been wanting to make cacio e pepe for a long time (ever since the Saveur pasta issue). Yours looks great.

      BTW, regarding the annual month-long ordeal of sickness, I HEAR ya! Same thing happens to me! Feel better soon!

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